In a state with three times the national rate of child sex abuse, dozens of women are working to offer a kind, effective and sustainable method of handling trauma.
By Sara Weber
Photo courtesy of SpyHop Productions
It’s the first brisk day of the season in Park City, Utah. There is still one week of summer left, but an autumn chill has hit the air.
Melissa McKain walks into her office, which is connected to the Summit County Library. To one direction she sees fall colors sweeping the mountains. To another direction—an Olympic training park that has hosted the likes of skier Ted Ligety, swimmer Summer Sanders and the late bobsledder Steven Holcomb.
Despite the idyllic community in which she works, McKain admits her job is challenging.
“It’s depressing,” she says, sitting in a lobby surrounded by blankets and stuffed animals. “We’re literally working with families on the worst day of their lives.”
McKain, along with a team of social workers, medical professionals and law enforcement officials, operate the Summit County Children’s Justice Center, a place child abuse victims can find comfort, assistance and resources throughout the investigative processes.
McKain is one of dozens of women operating the 20 Utah Children’s Justice Centers (CJCs) fighting child abuse in a state with three times the national amount of child sex abuse, according to Prevent Child Abuse Utah.
The Worst Possible Scenario
“Think about it: You’re having the worst possible day as a family,“ McKain says as she walks through the halls of her office.
It’s difficult to imagine this darkness when strolling through the building but that’s intentional.
The Summit County CJC looks like a pediatrician’s office, only much cozier. Wooden cubbies are stacked nearly to the ceiling, blocking all windows and views from the outside. Each is filled with homemade felt blankets and stuffed animals. Charlie Brown is perched next to Cookie Monster.
And in delicate cursive, a wooden sign on the front desk reads “be brave.”
The office is one of 20 in Utah and 822 across the United States aiming to “investigate abuse, help children heal from abuse and hold offenders accountable,” according to the National Children’s Alliance (NCA) website.
The NCA, which oversees CJCs and Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) across the country, reports that it served 324,602 children in 2016. More than 215,000 of those cases involved sexual abuse—that’s more than half of the children served. Other cases include physical abuse, neglect, witness to violence, drug endangerment and more.
McKain says her CJC handled 80 cases of abuse in its county alone during 2016. Of those investigations, 52 involved sexual abuse, 20 involved physical abuse and the rest involved sexual exploitation or witness of abuse.
The centers work with local government agencies like the Division of Family Services, detectives, medical examiners, therapists, prosecutors, courts, victim advocates and more, depending on each to help families move forward with legal options, physical healing and emotional recovery.
For many children, that means multiple-hour-long interviews with a plain clothes police officer, a medical examination by a nurse trained in child abuse and a meeting with parents to determine the next steps that must be taken—steps that vary from center to center and depend on each victim’s experience and needs.
“One of the strengths we have is a multi-agency approach,” Tonya Murray, director of the Uintah/Daggett County CJC says. “It’s not just one group gaining information that they need and trying to share that with others. They all come to the center and participate in the process as we go, so they’re getting their information right there on the front line.”
Murray, as well as most of the other Utah directors, meet every few months to discuss their work, strategies and necessities. In September, the meeting was held in Lehi, Utah.
“The majority of the people who are there are in a position where they have to make split-second decisions, and so they’re getting most information they can right then and then working as a team to be able to do what’s in the best interest of the child from there,” Murray says.
Back in Park City, McKain emphasizes the necessity of the centers.
“Before there were Children’s Justice Centers, if a child was abused they would have to travel all over the county and keep retelling their story,” McKain says. “You can imagine the revictimization that would cause the child, but also that would poke holes in their story because, even as adults, we retell a story differently each time we have to tell it.”
This gives way to the cornerstone of the CJC model: offering victims a safe space to tell their story a single time in as comfortable of a setting as possible and to help prosecutors build their case.
But as McKain says, that was particularly difficult before CJCs existed. In countless court cases, children were cross-examined about their abuse.
One woman in particular was frustrated by the lack of compassion for victims.
Our Most Precious Legacy
It was 1987 when Grethe Peterson served on a Utah jury in a children sex abuse case.
Throughout the trial, a four-year-old and a six-year-old continually relived the trauma of being abused by their father. The children were endlessly questioned. It was uncomfortable to witness.
In the end, Peterson and her fellow jurors were unable to find the father guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but Peterson was determined to do something about the way children with trauma were treated.
She spoke with judges, lawyers, social workers, therapists, law enforcement officers and more before she eventually found a disconnect between the law, advocates and victims.
“I went to a number of people that were in the system that were working with children, and I was so concerned about it, and they kept saying, ‘Well, you know, we aren’t doing a very good job,’” Peterson recalls in a 2016 video commemorating the 25th anniversary of Utah CJCs.
Looking to a Children’s Advocacy Center model set forth in Huntsville, Ala. that offered children a safe space after being abused, Peterson, the Weber County Attorney Reed Richards and Utah legislators Craig Peterson, Lyle Hillyard and John Valentine implemented the state’s CJC Program in 1991. In 1994, the Utah Attorney General’s Office absorbed the program.
While the program has since extended from three centers to 22, many local CJC directors admit that much remains to be done.
A Need to Educate
The NCA, formed in 1988, estimates that each year it serves 60 percent more child victims of physical abuse, 70 percent more child victims of neglect, 111 percent more child witnesses to violence and 49 percent more children endangered by drugs than it did in the past 10 years.
That being said, both the NCA and the Utah CJC Program acknowledge there is still room left to grow.
The NCA reports that its services are available to four of every five children in the U.S. That leaves approximately 13,533,785 children without access to a CJC or CAC.
Aside from legislative support, the NCA maintaining funding can help ensure children everywhere have access to a CJC or CAC.
Tracey Tabet, the Utah CJC Program Administrator, says that most centers across the country are private nonprofits. She describes centers in Utah as “more of a hybrid” because they are government-based operations but also use private funds.
Funding for Utah centers come from four different components: state, county and municipal, federal and private. Utah law explains that “Funding for centers under this section is intended to be broad-based, provided by a line item appropriation by the Legislature to the attorney general and is intended to include federal grant money, local government money and private donations.”
Tabet says state funding is allocated based on number of children served so that it can provide basic funding to ensure that core services are available to children even at the smallest centers.
County and municipal contributions vary by center. Tabet says she’s seen Utah centers receive anywhere between $7,000 a year and $300,000 a year, most often to a specific type of service rather than a flat donation. For example, 10 Utah centers successfully applied for $1.67 million in funding to expand mental health services for victims.
Private donations also vary from center to center, Tabet says. Most often, private contributions go toward maintaining office space.
The Utah directors agree that funding is their biggest hurdle.
“One of the challenges we’re working on right now is getting our medical program up and running,” says Shelley Wright, director of the Carbon County CJC. “All of our little kids have to travel over the mountain, and if you’re familiar with Highway 6, that’s just not feasible, let alone the cost to travel this way, especially to get a medical exam at midnight.”
McKain remembers one similar case in December 2016 that she says demonstrated the importance of an in-house medical exam room. A young girl came to the center in the middle of the night after she was raped.
She and her family traveled 45 minutes to the Summit County CJC and after a three-hour interview, detectives determined the girl needed a medical exam. The family agreed to take her to the nearest Primary Children’s Hospital, which is another 45 minutes down a canyon—if it’s not snowing.
“The girl just shut down and said, ‘I can’t go, why can’t I just stay here? Can’t we do the exam here?’ Our detective ended up going down with her and had to carry her to the car, and it was this very traumatic ride down the canyon.”
McKain says that was the moment she decided they needed an in-house solution—one that would help families find the resources they need without worrying about travel or time.
“I called the detective, and we agreed we needed a medical exam room,” McKain says. “We’ll never have an instance like that again.”
Other directors, like Utah County’s Rebecca Martell, say they need more money to expand their reach.
“Our county has grown by 100,000 people in the last two years,” Martell says after the Lehi conference. “It’s expanding like crazy. There’s a housing shortage, so we’re going to have to open a second satellite office.”
Most also agree that awareness of CJCs is another challenge.
“We’re trying to get the word out that you’re going to be OK if this happens to you,” McKain says. “It’s one of the worst things that can happen, but at the same time, we see you, and we want you to know that if something as traumatic as child abuse happens, we are here and that you can heal.”
That remains a challenge, however, considering the taboo nature of child sex abuse and the stigma victims face.
“It’s challenging because no one wants to discuss the topic,” Murray says. “I know in our rural area, there’s this mindset that that only happens in the big cities, and it does happen in our little farming community and our little hometown. There will always be a need to spread more awareness and not only make people aware but also educate them on what you do.”
And resistance to speak out about abuse becomes magnified for those fearing deportation, McKain says.
“One of our latest challenges is helping encourage families who may be undocumented that they can still report abuse,” she says. “We want them to know that regardless of documented status, they’re entitled to certain services as victims without worrying about being deported.”
But despite the challenges, McKain and the other CJC directors plan on continuing and expanding their work.
“It’s depressing work,” McKain says, sitting on her office couch. “But I’ll always remember when a while back, this young woman walked up to the front door. I immediately recognized her face, and when I opened the door, she just thanked me and said, ‘This center saved my life.’”
Sara Weber is writer and digital producer based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. She loves longform storytelling, sweet multimedia work, the Southwest and her terrier-mix, Baxter. You can find her work at sarapweber.com, or you can say hello on Twitter and Instagram.